BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Moderator Bob Schieffer wasted no time Monday night trying to get Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to address the controversy that has engulfed the campaign since the killing of four Americans -- including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens -- at a U.S. compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
"The first question, and it concerns Libya," Schieffer said as the third and final presidential debate began. "What happened? What caused it? Was it spontaneous? Was it an intelligence failure? Was it a policy failure? Was there an attempt to mislead people about what really happened?"
Having won a coin toss prior to the debate, Romney had the opportunity to respond first on an issue Republicans have been eager for another chance to address since last Tuesday's face-off at Hofstra University.
Instead, the GOP nominee ignored the line of inquiry and pivoted to other topics.
Choosing not to answer any of Schieffer's six specific questions, Romney delved into a broader discourse on "the environment in the Middle East," including the hope for "more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life" and also referencing the civil war in Syria.
Only then did the former Massachusetts governor mention the dynamic in Libya, and only briefly.
"We see in Libya an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind against our people there -- four people dead," Romney said. "Our hearts and minds go out to them."
Pointedly, he declined to criticize the administration's handling of the issue.
After this brief mention, Romney veered off into a discourse on "al-Qaeda type individuals" who have taken over the northern part of Mali and continued threats in Egypt before congratulating Obama for killing Osama bin Laden and pressing the fight against al-Qaeda's remaining leadership.
Later in the debate, it was Obama who returned the discussion to Libya, touting efforts to facilitate the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi without sending American troops into harm's way. Romney again chose not to re-engage his opponent on the world hot spot.
Romney's reluctance to address the Libyan issue directly came as a surprise, as many Republicans had considered it one of the president's greatest vulnerabilities going into the foreign policy debate.
The New York Times reported on Monday that by the time U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice took to the Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16 to characterize the attack as one that sprung from protests over an anti-Islam video, U.S. intelligence analysts were already coming to the conclusion that it was a planned terrorist assault.
Rice and other U.S. officials have said their initial characterizations were based on the intelligence that was available to them at the time, and the president previously mounted fierce criticism of Romney for his reaction to the chain of events, accusing him of politicizing the deaths of Americans.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been leading an investigation of the security situation leading up to the attack.
Romney appeared to miss an opportunity to score points on the Libya issue last week at the second presidential debate when he pressed Obama on his administration's response to the violence in Benghazi. In that instance, moderator Candy Crowley backed up Obama's assertion that he had described the event as an "act of terror" in his Rose Garden speech the day after the attack, and Romney wound up in a defensive posture.
But the surprising tactic of not engaging on the Libya issue Monday night was by design, according to one Republican official.
"His job was to convince the American people they could trust him on foreign policy and offer a vision for future," the GOP official said. "Re-litigating timelines is less important than the broader foreign policy argument."
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